Forty years ago, back in the days when people dubbed their favorite music onto cassettes, my buddy Chris came to work with Pierre Bensusan’s debut, Près de Paris. I thought it was astonishingly beautiful, and even though a lot has happened since—Chris has become a musicology professor, and Bensusan has become widely known as one of the greatest guitarists in the world—my feelings about Près de Paris’ perfection haven’t changed.
Over the course of ten studio albums, Bensusan has moved away from the simplicity of fiddle tunes, and starting with his 1982 release Solilai, he’s been focusing entirely on his own compositions, gaining complexity and sophistication as his sense of improvisation moves closer to jazz. Now, with Azwan, whose title comes from watching a flock of birds flying together “as one,” he’s continuing to draw his influences together measure by measure, envisioning his guitar as an orchestra that can deliver melody, bass, chords, and counterpoint at the same time.
From one bar to the next, there’s always a lot happening, and within a short piece like “Return to Ireland,” you can trace threads back to Spanish classical guitar, flamenco, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, John Renbourn, and harpist Turlough O’Carolan. Melodic ideas float freely across time and space, and in the song’s brief span, Bensusan quietly plucks the upper strings, rumbles his fingers across the lower strings, plays simultaneous ascending and descending lines, picks single strings and ringing three-note clusters, traces a gentle, stately melody up and down the neck, and closes the piece on a chord that seems to hang in mid-air, somehow making it all sound perfectly effortless.
Bensusan’s touch keeps growing increasingly subtle, and it’s steadily matched by the responsiveness of his 1978 Lowden, producing a variety of tones and textures along the spectrum.
The piece “Dia Libre” begins with a light, ringing melancholy, then reaches deeper each time he returns to the main theme, adding unlikely harmonies, stuttering notes, and tempo shifts to push the sound toward Gypsy jazz, with Bensusan scat-singing around a violin countermelody by Christophe Cravero as the song builds complexity and intensity.
Compositionally, that’s worlds away from the bossa nova “Without You,” which begins as an homage to Kenny Rankin, or the percussive slapping of “Wee Dander,” or the sweet, singsong melodies of “Corps Vaudou,” or the richly emotional lyricism of the title track. Dedicated to Bensusan’s wife, “Azwan” inhabits a patient stillness at the center of the album, a hopefulness, a dream of peace—even as the tune shifts direction, veering one way, then the next, and ending in a flurry of harmonics that hover like a question mark. It’s the heart of an album where each track feels strikingly different, with each telling its own story and each reaching for a different kind of delicate, unspeakable beauty.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.